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Originally published January 20, 2012 at 5:31 AM | Page modified February 6, 2012 at 3:47 PM

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Art review

'From the library of ...': the artistry of bookplates

The exhibit "Ex Libris: Contemporary & Antique Bookplates" at Davidson Galleries in Seattle celebrates the art of bookplates, which identify books' owners.

Special to The Seattle Times


'Ex Libris: Contemporary & Antique Bookplates'

10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturday through Jan. 28, Davidson Galleries, 313 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle (206-624-6700 or
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There's something intimate and slightly thrilling about opening a book and finding a bookplate pasted inside the cover. These small prints give us a glimpse of the owner through an illustration of the owner's name or identifying symbols.

Bookplates often include the words "Ex Libris,"a phrase that denotes "from the books," but has come to mean "from the library of" and is also another name for the bookplate itself. Riding a wave of nostalgia, bookplates are currently highly collectible as stand-alone prints that are enjoyed quite apart from the books in which they were originally meant to live.

Lining the back walls of the Davidson Galleries is a quiet but fantastically rich exhibition of antique and contemporary bookplates that draw you into little worlds of identity, pleasure, or warning. Shayla Alarie, director of the gallery's antique print department, and Cara Forrler, director of contemporary prints and drawings, have pulled together over 200 Ex Libris from private collections and their own inventory (about 100 are hanging on the walls, with the rest in portfolios that can be perused).

Alongside a plethora of works from Eastern Europe where there is vigorous activity in this form, there are examples by well-known bookplate artists Rockwell Kent and Horatio Nelson Poole, prints by artists known for other media such as Imogen Cunningham and Mark Tobey, and nine very recent prints by contemporary artists who responded to the gallery's open call for new works.

Many of the prints overtly illustrate the identities of the owners for whom they were made, from 18th century armorial bookplates that display the familial coat of arms to more contemporary examples that include the owner's name or indications of his or her literary, artistic, or professional pursuits. A 1949 etching by Enrico Vannuccini, created for a doctor, features an expressive, anatomical cross section of a human head accompanied by other identifying attributes such as a pipe and musical tuning fork.

Other plates are less about identification and more about the joys of reading, as in the depictions of men, women or children immersed in a book. Literary pleasure is also evoked through associations with other, quite sensual pleasures as with a late 18th-, early-20th-century etching by Austrian artist Franz Van Bayros, who used sumptuous detail to portray lovers on a swing. More abstract suggestions of inspiration or internal absorption can be seen in works like Barbara Robertson's 2011 digital print, which barely contains the surreal, polymorphic shapes and lines swirling within.

Other prints are philosophical, reflecting on the romantic, ephemeral, and perhaps even futile nature of reading and learning. Alarie and Forrier have grouped together Memento Mori prints full of skulls and brooding figures, a selection of Four Horsemen and other apocalyptic imagery, and, evoking the more romantic side, a wonderful array of Don Quixote imagery.

These ruminations on the fleeting nature of life, and the role of books and knowledge within it, are particularly poignant today as the way we read and think about the objecthood of the book are thrown into flux. In fact, the renewed appeal of bookplates may be directly related to the digitization of reading material and the popularity of e-readers. As Alarie points out, "Often when there is an increase in technology, there is a wave of nostalgia for tradition, an appreciation of craft and the sense of the tactile."

While these prints are Ex Libris — now set apart from the books themselves — they are intrinsically and evocatively bound to the experience of reading and owning tangible books.

The name of Cara Forrer, director of contemporary prints and drawings at Davidson Galleries, was misspelled.

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